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Huntington amends fairness ordinance

Dec. 23, 2013 @ 11:22 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Services within the city of Huntington, from employment to leasing someone an apartment, can no longer be denied to someone based on that person's sexuality or veteran status.

The Huntington City Council unanimously adopted a second reading of an ordinance updating the city's fairness policy to include sexual orientation and military service record to the list of those protected from discrimination, joining the ranks of race, religion and similar personal identifiers.

The council also amended the ordinance to change the word "handicapped" -- an already protected group -- to "disabled." The update of the terminology was suggested by Councilwoman Rebecca Thacker, who is confined to a wheelchair.

Thacker said it wasn't her own experience that prompted her to push for the change, but that of a constituent who had a stutter. She said that constituent had referred to Thacker as his voice on City Council.

The ordinance was sponsored by Councilman David Ball, and Ball asked that Thacker be added as a co-sponsor at Monday's meeting.

The decision received praise from a larger-than-average crowd on hand for Monday's meeting.

Many were members of Fairness West Virginia, a statewide organization that lobbies for the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community in the Mountain State.

Negotiations on the ordinance locally were headed up by Fairness West Virginia member and Huntington resident Justin Murdock, who is gay.

"I came in with some trepidation when I initially met with Councilman Ball to get an ordinance like this on the agenda," Murdock said after the meeting. "His reception was that it was the right time, and absolutely the right thing to do, and to see it pass unanimously tonight speaks to our city and where we're headed. We're becoming a more progressive city."

During the meeting, Murdock, 32, had said it was "alarming" that West Virginia cities such as Morgantown and Charleston already had such protections in place and Huntington did not.

An effort to add sexual orientation to the city's fairness ordinance was made in the mid-1990s, and was defeated by a 9-2 vote.

Ball read a letter from Betty Barrett, who was a member of that council. In the letter, Barrett described the meeting at which the amendment was defeated as one of her worst nights on City Council in her 12 years in office.

Monday's 11-0 approval certainly seemed to signify that times have changed.

"I'm proud of this council. This ordinance has been such a breeze to work with everybody on, and that is an encouragement," Murdock said before the vote. "I work with the disabled community in my day-to-day job, and this is a great thing for them. I see a lot of disabled veterans, and to have veterans recognized in this is important. And, on a very personal level, sexual orientation. You know, it's time we say that discrimination is not going to be tolerated across the board."

In all, six citizens spoke in favor of the change to the ordinance, and none spoke against it.

City resident Carole Boster said she believes the matter is not only one of social equality, but also economic development.

"Marshall University has had this in their policy for at least 20 years, and it's in the policies of a lot of the major corporations that we want to bring into the city," Boster said. "I think it makes a public statement to people that the city of Huntington welcomes all people, and that anyone will have equal opportunity for housing or employment here regardless of their sexual orientation, their minority status, their veteran status or their disability status."

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